A few years ago, I got fed up with my inexpert baking skills. Facing a slew of holiday parties, I decided to bring a cheese ball instead of slightly singed sugar cookies to each and every one. I’m not sure where my inspiration came from, although it might have been from the Philadelphia Cream Cheese Cookbook (I am a huge fan of brand cookbooks: see also Jell-O and Campbell Soup. I figure those folks in the test kitchen know what they’re doing.)
The Philadelphia Cream Cheese Cookbook has sadly been lost to the sands of time/moving boxes of books I have yet to unpack. But I recall that it had an entire chapter on cheese balls, and I got really fancy with it. I started with your classic round ball, and even worked my way into cheese logs. I remember that it was fun to basically doll up your cheese ball any way you like: tabasco or no, green onions or chives, herbs dried or fresh, and myriad cheeses, from blue to brie.
I am far from the first party thrower/attendee to get hooked on the cheese ball: According to Cheese Culture Magazine, the inspired spherical creation first sprung up in the 1800s, but really came into popularity in mid-20th century America. While the cheese ball’s popularity waned post-’70s, thanks to cheese ball enthusiasts like Amy Sedaris, the kitschy, nostalgic appetizer has made quite a comeback over the past few years.
Recently I spied a whole Cheese Balls cookbook by Dena Rayess from Chronicle Books, and was immediately riveted. The vintage-esque photos immediately drew me in, as did the sheer volume of the book. Rayess offers 40 recipes, including any kind of cheese ball you can imagine, from savory to sweet (there’s a cheesecake one I need to try next), in categories like “Afternoon Snacks” and “Evening Affairs,” and shapes like spherical and logs to even pumpkins and owls.
Intrigued, I spoke to Rayess about the modern-day renaissance of the cheese ball. She explains that she was drawn to the party app art form because, “I love throwing parties, but I get overly ambitious. Most of the time I’m down to the wire, vacuuming like crazy and still stirring something, half-dressed. So the cheese ball has always been like my last minute, can-make-this-in-15-minutes, go-to party snack.”
It’s true. Making the cheese ball is so easy, and yields so much wow factor. I have never brought a cheese ball out at a party and had it greeted with anything but absolute glee. But Rayess and I both have disdain for your fluorescent, store-bought cheese ball: no need to put your friends through that when delicious homemade cheese balls are so easy.
What are her go-tos? “Either the classic [recipe below] or the port wine one; it’s super tasty and elevated from what people are probably familiar with. But if I want to kind of surprise guests, I love the French onion one. It’s so good, with slow-cooked onions mixed in there, you can eat it with potato chips.”
That’s an anomaly though: One thing about the cheese ball is that most of these need a sturdy dipper, not a cookie or cracker that’s about to crumble. Rayess recommends “pita chips, crudités, think apple chips,” which would go well with the cheese ball options on the dessert side of the menu. “People mostly think of savory, but there is so much you can do on the sweet side as well.”
So for a holiday party I attended last weekend, I took Rayess’ advice and went with her Classic Cheese Ball. I found it was easiest (although messiest) to use my hands to mix the whole thing thoroughly, and I tossed in green onions instead of parsley and a bit of extra hot sauce. Again, it took very little time at all (even with toasting the pecans first, which amps up their flavor considerably), and my hosts were thrilled. Also, it was straight-up delicious. It was my first but far from my last cheese ball of this holiday season, and, I predict, many seasons still to come.
- 8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
- 2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- 2 oz. Brie cheese, rind removed
- 1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
- 1/4 to 1/2 tsp. hot sauce, or to taste
- 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp. onion powder
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 6 oz. toasted pecans (cook on baking sheet at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes and let cool)
Combine the cream cheese, cheddar, Brie, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, garlic powder, and onion powder in a bowl. With an electric mixer, beat on medium speed until incorporated. Add the parsley and continue to beat on low speed until just combined. Form the mixture into a ball and refrigerate until set.
While the cheese ball sets, coarsely chop the pecans and spread on a rimmed plate.
About 30 minutes before serving, remove the cheese ball from the fridge. Roll the ball in the pecans, pressing them firmly to the exterior, until completely covered. Let soften at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Serve with Ritz crackers, crostini, assorted sliced raw vegetables (carrots, celery, radishes, green beans).
Reprinted from Cheese Balls: 40 Celebratory And Cheese-licious recipes by Dena Rayess. Published 2018 by Chronicle Books. All rights reserved.